book review · books

We Still Don’t Know What to Do Right

Hey lovely readers, I promise I am not dead and I still have opinions about books. Reading that is fun is desparately important to me right now because I’m d r o w n i n g in readings for my degree (which I love! but still…). I read How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right, which is essays about fast fashion and work culture and text on call, and authenticity. Only about half the essays knew what they were about and there was a lot of information, and I had feelings, so here’s a review.

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What I wanted was something similar to Everything I Know About Love. I loved that book–it was one of my bright spots in lockdown, so funny and clever and astute and such a testament to friendship. I wasn’t aware that Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes were friends, but the marketing–even the cover–of How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? was quite similar, and that is why I read it.

I took a class last year on Media and wellbeing. I am a woman in her twenties who is slightly literary and reasonably online, which is to say I read Hannah Jane Parkinson and Jia Tolentino and Sirin Kale and Amanda Mull and Johanna Fuertes and Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jess Carter-Morley and Harriet Walker and Gaby Hinsliff and Rebecca Solnit and Jenny Odell and Oliver Burkeman and Anne Helen Peterson and basically centre-left upper class writers and the Guardian usual suspects, and because of that, very little in this book felt new to me. Pandora Sykes clearly reads widely, and even apparently conducted some email interviews, but I didn’t get a sense of her looking beyond her well known paths of reading to put this together; it more felt like she was seeking things that confirmed what she knew already. The whole thing was very self aware; to be very self aware, I would say that I know that women are often expected to put their selves into their work, which is something worth examining; and still, I would have liked more of Sykes self in her work. Even if it was one section of each essay, or one chapter of the whole book where she really interrogates herself and who she is; like what Naomi Klein did in Chapter 13 of This Changes Everything.

Each essay had heaps of detail, and they were interesting facts to put together, but I couldn’t see the logic. Pandora Sykes had names for things, like “Get the Look”, and is astute enough to recognise a usefu variety of trends; but she didn’t have theory. Her observations about texting felt really fresh, and she gets into the why of how we text, but I wanted something bigger, a theory, an understanding of why we text ceaselessly and stressfully that went beyond confirmation of the ceaselessness and stressfulness. She could have used someone else’s theory and applied it to her topics of choice, or developed some of her nascent ideas about millenial digital womanhood a bit, but she was trying to let the quotes and the facts and the ideas speak for themselves. In doing that, the copious research and presentation of ideas were just an amalgamation; they didn’t do anything.

And it’s a damned shame, because Sykes is truly an excellent and interesting writer, and she has these occasional quips like “Even the opening of a Facebook profile once I hit university – back when you needed a ‘.edu’ email address to activate an account rather than just a scan to prove you were a foetus – didn’t cause me undue strife.” She never gives these enough attention. She is too busy proving how smart and thoughtful and well read she is to let her writing shine. The book feels rushed—and it’s almost hard to tell, because it is erudite yet non scholarly, covered by a perfect veneer of well-tended writing. 

Sykes desperately wants to be of the moment, and I had to go back and check the publication date on this, because, other than not having any mentions of COVID, it could have been written last week. There are references to “last year” and February 2020, like she expected to be a couple of lifestyle magazines summer book club picks. I looked her up, and, just like she says in the moments when she proves she’s aware of her privilege, she is somewhat online (and so are her children), and is a gorgeous white woman wearing designer clothes, who has done multiple brand collaborations (although that seems to be a few years ago). I’m not accusing her of hypocrisy; she was thoughtful in moments about her power and her role, and the book rarely claims to be universal.

Essays on contemporary life written by the loose age bracket designated as millennials are, inevitably, becoming more common. This one had so much to offer, and no time to pause, which was such a missed opportunity, especially in the hands of such a well-connected and elegant writer. Pandora Sykes, you nearly got it right.

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